Back in the dark days of the 1980s, one of the first things I learned to make in home economics class at my all-girls’ school was macaroni cheese. Ours was a class training in the basics of good 1980s wifery – white sauces like the Mornay that forms the base of this dish, bread, pastry, and, bizarrely, the correct ironing of a man’s suit. (I like to think that I’m an excellent 2000s wife, but surely the ironing of suits is the dry cleaner’s job – or that of the suit owner?) I remember bringing a large carton of macaroni cheese home, and eating it with my proud parents. I also remember the girl who left her carton of macaroni cheese at school in her locker at the back of the classroom, and forgot to retrieve it until the smell became so strong that everyone thought that one of the rats from the biology department had escaped and died somewhere.
Last year, my excellent brother bought me a white truffle, preserved in a jar, for my birthday. I felt duty-bound to stop keeping it in the cupboard and just looking at it every now and then (when there are very good things in that cupboard I have a horrible habit of not cooking with them in case I come up with a better idea for them later on). I needed to do something with it before my next birthday, so I cast around for something simple that would showcase the truffle in a creamy, cheesy, soothing sort of way. What better than macaroni cheese?
If you have fresh truffles, so much the better. If you have no truffles at all, this dish will still be absolutely delicious; it just won’t be truffled.
A quick note about the truffle oil I’ve used alongside the real truffle here before we begin. Preserved truffles inevitably have less aroma than fresh ones, so I’ve used some white truffle oil alongside my truffle. It’s genuine truffle oil – but most of the truffle oil you’ll see on the market has never been near a real truffle. The stuff you’ll usually see on sale is made with olive oil and Bis-(methylthio)methane or 2,4-dithiapentane, both industrially synthesised versions of odour chemicals occurring in real truffles. It’s not a patch on real truffles, which have hundreds of different chemicals combining with the dismal-sounding Bis-(methylthio)methane and 2,4-dithiapentane to create a much more complex odour and flavour profile than the oil has. It’d be a real shame to use any near your real truffle (although some unscrupulous chefs do use the stuff to vamp up lacklustre truffles). Happily, you can also buy olive oil which has been infused with real truffles; unhappily, it’s far more expensive than the synthetic stuff. Check your label. If it says “truffle essence”, “truffle flavour”, or “truffle aroma”, it’s synthetic. If it’s heartstoppingly expensive and says clearly on the label that real truffles have been used to make it (you can buy the real stuff at e-Foodies, a company I’m very fond of), buy it and use it here. If all you can find is the synthetic stuff, I’ll leave it up to you – use it if you like, but be aware that it doesn’t really taste like truffles; and you should feel absolutely free to leave it out of this recipe.
To serve four, you’ll need:
2 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
1 bunch parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
25g plain flour
200g Parmesan cheese
75g Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small head broccoli
3 egg yolks
1 truffle (white or black)
2 tablespoons truffle oil
Salt to taste
Start by infusing the milk that will make the base of your Mornay (cheese) sauce with aromatics. Pour the milk into a saucepan with a well-fitting lid, and add the peeled carrot, cut into halves, the halved shallot, studded with the cloves, the bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Add a teaspoon of salt and ten whole peppercorns. Bring the milk to a bare simmer, then turn the heat off and leave the saucepan in a warm place for 3-4 hours. Strain the milk through a sieve.
Boil the macaroni according to the packet instructions with a tablespoon of olive oil. When the macaroni is cooked, rinse it in a colander to remove excess starch and set aside. Divide the raw broccoli into tiny florets and mix with the macaroni.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
In a clean, dry saucepan, melt the butter and combine with the flour, stirring over a low to medium heat for three minutes. Stirring all the time (I like to use a balloon whisk), add a small amount of milk and stir until it is incorporated into the sauce and starts to thicken. Keep adding milk in small amounts and stirring vigorously until all the milk is incorporated and you have a smooth, thick sauce. Stir the grated cheeses (reserving a little parmesan to top the dish with) into the sauce with the beaten egg yolks, the finely chopped truffle and the truffle oil (if using). Taste the sauce and add more salt if you think it needs it – the cheese is quite salty, so you may not need any.
Combine the sauce and the macaroni/broccoli mixture in a shallow earthenware dish. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining Parmesan cheese, and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the top is brown and the sauce is bubbling. Serve immediately, pouring over a little more (real) truffle oil if you fancy.